State's college graduation rates bedevil education experts

October 31, 2009

When Bluto Blutarsky, John Belushi’s character in the movie “Animal House,” was finally expelled from fictional Faber College, he was in his seventh year. He’d fit right in at Indiana’s public universities.

Just over half of students at state-supported, four-year institutions graduate within six years. The four-year graduation rate is a woeful 29 percent.

Those numbers are driven so low mostly by dropouts and transfers, not by debauched drunks like Bluto Blutarsky, who earned a 0.0 GPA.

But either way, poor graduation rates represent a tremendous waste of resources by both students and taxpayers.

They also point up a huge barrier facing state leaders in their efforts to boost the number of citizens with bachelor’s degrees—one of the surest indicators of economic success in a 21st century economy driven less by workers’ hands and more by their heads.

“Once we get them there, we’ve got to get them to complete,” said Teresa Lubbers, Indiana commissioner for higher education. Because “once they drop out, getting them to come back again is really tough.”

College completion has been the top issue for the Indiana Commission on Higher Education the past three years. The commission set a goal for Indiana to be among the top 10 states by the year 2015.

In 2007, the state ranked 23rd. Its four-year rate of 29 percent was equal to the national average.

But being average isn’t good enough for Indiana because the percentage of residents with college degrees ranks well below the national average. In order to catch up in that key statistic, the state needs more people to complete college.

The four-year completion rates look better when private colleges are included—36 percent. But again, that’s exactly the same as the national average.

Indiana is by no means alone. College completion rates are receiving major attention—and money—from the national levels.

President Obama dwelt on the topic in his first address to Congress in February—even making a vow that “by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.”

He then included in his budget a $2.5 billion fund to help boost retention and completion rates at colleges.

In the late 1960s, 47 percent of students earned a bachelor’s degree in four years, according to a 2003 study by researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles. The rate dwindled to 37 percent in the early ’90s and has essentially been stuck there since.

Over the same 40-year period, the percentage of Americans with a college degree has been stuck at 39 percent.

That’s a problem, not only because the United States more than ever needs to have an educational edge to remain competitive against emerging economies such as China, India, Taiwan and Korea.

The nation also faces retirements of baby boomers—many of whom are college-educated. According to Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation for Education, that retirement wave will leave the nation short 23 million people with bachelor’s degrees by 2025.

“Our rate of production of college degrees is not high enough,” said Jamie Merisotis, president of the foundation. “Our retention and completion rates are not high enough.”

Focused on freshmen

Universities around Indiana are trying to get more students to graduate by first getting more of them to stay—particularly past their freshman year.

Purdue and Ball State universities are seeing results from programs based on the freshman experience.

This year, IUPUI gave 700 freshmen small clocks to drive home the importance of on-time graduation.

Ball State started zeroing in on its freshmen four years ago when it noticed its retention rate for first-year students had dipped to 74.5 percent.

So it has heavily emphasized so-called “Living-Learning Communities,” which try to create smaller groups of students who live in the same buildings or take many of the same classes.

Ball State also has a variety of summer “bridge” programs for incoming freshmen. Of students who participate in those programs, the retention rate is 85 percent.

“It’s a way for them to begin connecting with peers,” said Kay Bales, Ball State’s vice president of student affairs. She added, “If they don’t get off on the right foot, then there can be a lot of frustration. We want to set them up for success.”

Ball State’s freshman retention rate is now above 78 percent. And its graduation rates are trending up, too.

Purdue’s West Lafayette campus has a summer orientation program run by upper classmen, and offers various “learning communities” of 20 to 30 students who help new students connect with one another.

Purdue has found that, among students participating in both the learning communities and orientation program called Boiler Gold Rush, 92 percent stay at Purdue beyond their freshman year.

The university’s overall average is nearly 87 percent, up from 84 percent three years ago.

A more recent addition is its Signals program. It tracks students’ grades, and measures their effort based on things like attendance, frequency of reading online homework, and logging in to course chat groups. The program then gives students a green, yellow or red signal to show how they’re doing in each course.

The system produces a signal for each course as early as two weeks into students’ first semester.

“It’s one of these strategies I call, ‘Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide,’” said Pam Horne, Purdue’s dean of admissions. She added, “Having a revolving door is in no way, shape or form fulfilling our mission.”

Incentives for universities

Yet, public universities receive state funding based primarily on their success at enrolling students, not on how many graduate.

Merisotis of the Lumina Foundation and Lubbers would like to change that. They want to see the state change its university funding policies so that more of the money hinges on graduation rates.

That’s a controversial issue because, schools argue, different schools serve different kinds of students with greatly varied abilities. So it’s not surprising that the state’s most prestigious school, the University of Notre Dame, has a six-year graduation rate for full-time bachelor’s students of 95 percent.

By contrast, Purdue’s satellite campus near Michigan City has a woeful graduation rate of 13 percent.

Horne, who does not have direct responsibility for completion rates at Purdue’s satellite campuses, still said they are an issue of “concern and focus” for the university’s leadership as a whole. But she said it’s important to place those completion rates in context.

“They do serve many more non-traditional students,” she said of Purdue’s satellite campuses, which include locations in Fort Wayne and Calumet. “When you serve a different kind of population, you kind of have to have different kinds of expectations.”

But recent research by the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, has shown that, even when schools are divided into six categories based on the rigor of their admissions policies, graduation rates still vary widely.

Its study noted that Notre Dame’s graduation rate is very, very good—quite a bit higher than even the 88-percent average for schools with the toughest admissions standards.

But the Purdue campus near Michigan City comes in far below the 40-percent average graduation rate for its peers, classed by the report as “Less Competitive.”

“Colleges and universities receive tens of billions of dollars from taxpayers every year, but the evidence suggests that many of these institutions are not serving their students well,” study authors Rick Hess, Mark Schneider, Kevin Carey and Andrew Kelly wrote in their June report.

Still, schools argue, paying based on graduation could easily lead schools to try to boost their graduation rates through undesirable means, such as dumbing down curriculum or shunning students with poorer grades.

The Indiana Commission on Higher Education has been working to create a funding formula that would take into account the different student populations served by different universities, as well as other complicating factors.

“We’ve got to be able to do more than have those completion rates be at 50 percent or below,” Merisotis said. “That’s clearly not acceptable.”•


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